Now, as we take tea in Chelsea, Cooke is transformed - slim and chic, her clear olive skin glowing, her hair thick and glossy. The first time we spoke, on the phone, Cooke had been slightly breathless and sounded unwell. Not a bit of it, she explains, she had just been racing around the garden with her three-year-old son. While 12 months ago her only race had been against time, her latest blood tests indicate that the cancer that had seemed so virulent in her system has now been beaten, and by unusual means.
Cooke's nightmare started with a chance remark from her doctor that she should examine her breasts regularly. That evening, to her horror, she felt large lumps in one of them. Tests, and a second opinion, both confirmed cancer. Next morning, the tumours were removed. "I was told `You must have this' and I was thinking, `Will it save my life?'" she says. "All you know is that you think you might die. I couldn't imagine dying so young."
In hindsight, Cooke is angry that she felt shepherded into her treatment. "If I could do it all again, I would not have gone through the orthodox system," she says. "I'd have found a counsellor and a healer, gone to an alternative clinic, and had the surgery only if I'd had to. I wasn't given a choice."
It's a contentious view, given that talk of healers may not sit well with many patients, let alone with the doctors who are caring as best they can. For Cooke though, alternative medicine was a lifeline she wanted thrown to her. That job was left to her friend who, last April, returned from the US with books on alternative treatments, including those available at clinics in Tijuana, Mexico. (The town has been gaining fame - some would say infamy - as a centre for alternative cancer practitioners since the Seventies.) That same weekend, Linda McCartney died of breast cancer.
For Cooke this proved cathartic. "Here was a woman who had everything. And they still couldn't save her. I found that really hard to take. I was due for my fourth chemotherapy and I remember saying to my husband, `I don't know if I'm going to go for my chemo'. He was very angry, telling me I had to. But on the morning I woke up and decided outright I wasn't going back. I spent that day looking for flights to Mexico, then phoned the clinic and told them I was coming. I thought I wasn't going to survive anyway, so what did I have to lose?"
It wasn't a view shared by her husband and four children. "They tried to talk me out of it," admits Cooke. "My two eldest sons reacted in different ways: one didn't want to discuss it, has never read my articles or talked to me about it; the other is constantly on to me about it. It's taken its toll but it has brought the family together."
On her first two-week visit to Tijuana, Cooke attended the clinic each day. There was a huge emphasis on an organic diet and positive thinking. "They tell you immediately about stress that's manifested itself over the years; you learn how to control anger, any negative feelings you have built up. You learn to relax. The funny thing is, when someone says to you `You have cancer, you're going to die', you relax automatically. You look at life as you should - we're here to love, to give, to grow. Within a week I was beginning to look at life positively. I wasn't scared of dying."
Unfortunately, by the time she had gone to the clinic, she had bone cancer, picked up in her first blood test from the clinic. "They started working on it immediately and did test after test," she says. Her treatment consisted of high doses of vitamin C, selenium and laetrile, a controversial substance derived primarily from apricots and almonds. Hydrogen peroxide was used to cleanse the blood. Subsequent tests have shown no trace of the cancer. "I'm 100 per cent clear and, without question, I attribute that to alternative medicine, to the treatments, to the lifestyle changes and to the diet, which is absolutely vital."
Cooke maintains a strict organic diet, sees a healer every week and now attends a New York clinic regularly for further treatments and tests. Her frustrations at the lack of options offered to her within orthodox medicine have led her to set up the Cancer Alternative Information Bureau. The group is planning to hold a series of seminars and workshops with leading alternative cancer specialists this year and will soon launch its own web site. Nevertheless, Cooke acknowledges that some orthodox treatments do have much to recommend them, and can complement alternative therapies.
Britain, with one of the highest mortality rates for breast cancer in the world, can claim some pitiful records: breast cancer is the leading cause of death for women aged 35-54 and is the most common cancer in minority groups in the UK. Our modern obsession with the breast only adds to the emotional agony. Cooke has experienced the painful vulnerability of that clash between what our emotions and our intellect tell us. "I couldn't look at myself in the mirror," she says. "The first time I did, I nearly passed out. I felt that I'd been completely pulled apart. My husband was so good about it. He actually said to me, `It is totally irrelevant'."
Cooke opted for a breast reconstruction, which she now feels was unnecessary. "Why go through another operation when you don't need to?" she says. "I confess I don't look at myself every day in the mirror, so I haven't really come to terms with that yet, but you do get over it. You look at the bigger picture and think, `Forget the cancer, that's life and I've got to live'."
Cancer Alternative Information Bureau, 3 Westwood Gardens, London SW13; fax 0181 332 0306; e-mail: Sitincooke@aol.com.
Cancer Bacup freephone helpline: 0808 800 1234.
THE ORTHODOX VIEW
A woman who refuses orthodox treatment for breast cancer is playing Russian roulette, writes Jeremy Laurance. The best advice is to seek treatment in a hospital that specialises in the disease. If you discover a lump, seek diagnosis and treatment quickly. The current issue of The Lancet includes a huge study showing that a delay of as little as three months in obtaining treatment can reduce the chances of survival. The latest evidence shows that even in early cases, radiotherapy and chemotherapy combined with surgery improves survival.Reuse content